Liquor Nerd: Thanks to the rebirth of mixology and, um, other things, these are great days to up your garnish game

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      Blame Instagram for ruining everything. As difficult as this might be to believe today, there was a time when your cocktails didn’t have to look more styling than Charlize Theron and Bradley Cooper on Oscar night.

      Let's single out the ’70s for ushering the dark years, throwing the ’80s and ’90s in there for good measure. For a good three decades drinks largely became something that looked like they came off assembly lines. You didn’t go to the disco, punk dive, goth bar, or, um, Thank-God-It’s-Friday chain restaurant for an impeccably crafted Kumquat Sidecar with smoked-infused simple syrup and duck-fat-washed cognac.

      In the clubs, a rum-and-coke or gin-and-tonic—plastic straws optional—did the job brilliantly when you needed something to cool you down before heading back to the dance floor, mosh pit, or bowels of the Bat Cave.

      As for dining out, it was an endless era of salad bars, surf-and-well-done-turf, and pre-mix Margaritas and Piña Coladas. On the garnish front you got a pineapple wedge, orange slice, or cherry on a plastic sword.

      That’s all changed today, thanks to the rebirth of mixology in the ’00s.

      In a return to the way things were once done, bartending became an art again, with the creative process starting long before the cocktail ingredients ended up in the shaker. Seemingly overnight there were tinctures to be created, bitters to be experimented with, and infusions to oversee. And the results became magic, to the point where the only thing holding bartenders back today is their imaginations.

      New-school bartenders have gone on to become rock stars—some locally revered and a lucky few internationally famous. And that’s deserved. Because no matter how accomplished you may fancy your own home-bar program, chances are slim you’ve come up with the idea of mixing Plantation Trinidad Rum with coconut-and-spices Ceylon tea, Batavia Arrack, fresh lime and pineapple juices, and a squirt of milk. Or taking a couple shots of cask-strength Maker’s Mark and combining them with a tart blueberry-thyme shrub, candied elderflower, and bitter Italian amari.

      Blame Instagram for this shot too.
      Mike Usinger

      As for the rest of us, why settle for an old-school Whiskey Sour when you’ve got a DIY jar of house-made syrup that started with apple wood–smoked cherries?

      As great as a simple Margarita might be, it’s goddamn impressive with chipotle-spiked agave nectar, a splash of organic hibiscus tea, and a dusting of sumac.

      Fittingly, as cocktails became liquid works of art, they also started looking like, well, works of art. For that, let’s thank (or, blame, because it’s fun to hate Mark Zuckerberg) the rise of Instagram. To have the perfect drink at this point in history is to have the inexplicable need to capture the beauty of that perfect drink with the perfectly framed shot run through the perfect filter (hello, Hefe!).

      So where does that leave you, as a person who’s spent the pandemic committed to upping your cocktail game? A year and a half ago—before COVID-19 left you at home with endless hours to master everything from sourdough to building the perfect Mindcraft village—you left things to the professionals.

      Being a busy person with a busy schedule, you were lucky enough to have time to pull together a Sailor Jerry and Five Alive before dinner. The squirt of ReaLime was totally optional. As was the no name maraschino cherry plopped in the glass as a garnish.
      Now you’ve seen the light, which explains why every L’Alligator C’est Vert or Singapura served up at home comes with an artfully placed pandan leaf and dried lime wheel affixed by a tiny clothespin (optional).

      Garnishes serve a couple of purposes. Most importantly (at least for those who really don’t care about presentation) is the way they can add subtle flavours and aromas to a cocktail. Mix up a Manhattan, taste it, and then see what you’re missing out on by adding a strip of lemon peel, making sure to twist it over the glass to release the citrus oils.

      While James Bond may or may not approve, a Sipsmith gin and vermouth Martini can go from brilliant to transcendent when a Castelvetrano olive joins the party. Dust the top of a classic Margarita with sumac or chipotle and you’ve something that not only looks vaguely fancy with almost no effort required, but also adds an extra layer of flavour.

      Garnishes also add visual pop, especially true when someone’s affixed a Lilliputian-size minibox of popcorn (seriously—that’s a thing) to the side of a Caesar. Or taken a melon scooper to a Dragon fruit for a show-stopping Lychee Martini.

      And that visual bonus can be easy (although time-consuming) to execute, meaning big payoff for minimal effort.

      Want to impress? Spend a day making dehydrated citrus wheels by cutting lemons, limes, blood oranges, or tangerines into 1/4” slices and then bake them on a rack for six or seven hours at 80° C, turning every two hours. Then pick up a bottle of Woodford Reserve cocktail cherries—which run at around $25 online—a 99-cent bunch of mint, and pack of satay sticks at the grocery store, and unleash your inner arts-and-crafts star.

      Too much work (the limes) and too rich (the cherries) for your COVID-19 budget? Here’s a pro tip: at Persia Foods on Commercial Drive, a bag of dehydrated lime wheels will run you about $3.50, a frozen package of sinfully delicious sour cherries $5, and sumac around $2.50. Pandan leaves, meanwhile, cost $5.50 a frozen package at South China Seas on Victoria.

      Fancy? No. But you’ve got all the same basic building blocks as the pros. And plenty of time to work on your garnish game until it’s totally Instagram-perfect.

      Cherry Whiskey Smash

      2 oz. bourbon
      1/2 oz. fresh cherry juice
      1/2 oz. simple syrup
      3 sour cherries
      8 mint leaves
      lemon wedge
      (For garnish)
      dried lime wheel
      3 sour cherries
      2 mint leaves
      Add simple syrup, cherry juice, cherries, mint leaves, and lemon wedge to a shaker and gently muddle. Add bourbon, fill shaker with ice, stir to combine, and then strain into a rocks glass filled with ice. Garnish with cherries, mint sprigs, and dehydrated lime wheel of your own creation.


      Mike Usinger is not a professional bartender. He does, however, spend most of his waking hours sitting on barstools.